By Rebbetzen Siobhan Dansky, Participant in the Chief Rabbi’s Ma’ayan Programme
A popular custom on Tu B’Shevat is to eat 15 different fruits, including a new fruit that one has not eaten in the past year. There is also a particular focus on the fruits for which the Land of Israel is praised in the Torah: grapes, figs, dates, olives and pomegranates (see Devarim 8:8).
Why do we celebrate the trees in the middle of winter when they are at their most barren? Surely we would appreciate them more when they are full of blossom, or their branches are heavy with fruit?
Trees grow through all four seasons. In spring and summer, they blossom and produce delicious, sweet fruit. In autumn and winter, they lose their leaves and are bare and vulnerable. Tu B’Shevat is the day in mid-winter when we mark the time that the sap starts to rise inside the tree that will ultimately lead to it becoming fruitful again. Even though the tree looks dead on the outside, there is movement hidden deep inside the trunk. It is this potential for growth that we celebrate on Tu B’Shevat, teaching us that even in the cold of winter, the tree has the potential to blossom in the spring.
The Torah compares humans to a tree, “ki ha’adam eitz hasadeh – for a person is a tree of the field” (Devarim 20:19). Just as trees grow through the seasons, we also have similar patterns in our lives. There will be times when we flourish, are productive and see the incredible fruits of our labours, and there are times when we may feel frozen and stuck, and it may be a challenge to feel we are able to thrive. Tu B’Shevat teaches us that we should never give up hope – it may be precisely because of the harshest experiences that, in time, we are able to grow, become stronger and flourish in the future. Each stage of life is necessary as part of our growth process.
If the lesson comes from the trees, why do we celebrate by eating fruit? Surely it would make more sense to celebrate the trees themselves, not their produce. Sometimes we see our value in life according to what we have in our bank accounts, our possessions or our personal achievements, but our true value is in what we contribute to the world and what we give to others. There is a saying that “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”. The fruits are the trees’ gifts to us. Celebrating with the fruits teaches us that as we grow through each season of our lives, we should always retain hope in the future and translate our potential into a life of giving to the world.